What Are We Celebrating?

Simchat Torah (in Israel–in the diaspora where the holidays last two days rather than one, it’s the following day) is the climax of a month of intense holidays, beginning with Rosh HaShanna, running through Yom Kippur and Sukkot. The overall theme has been tshuva, self-correction and refinement, but there has been a not-so-subtle shift in tone from great solemnity and absolute fear to unbridled joy. On Simchat Torah we not only madly dance with our arms wrapped around Torah scrolls, but we also end and restart our yearly cycle of the Five Books of Moses.

In general, we accord a Torah scroll a tremendous amount of honor and respect. The slightest defect in a letter must be promptly repaired. We wrap them in either a beautiful wooden case or with a velvet cover. If one ever falls to the ground, chas v’shalom, a forty-day fast is required. We place the Torah scrolls in a special cabinet, always in the very front of the synagogue in the direction of Jerusalem (or, in the direction of the Temple Mount itself), so it appears, and to a certain degree we are, praying directly to this Torah scroll.

At first sight, this seems anti-Jewish. In a religion where we’re warned away from even the appearance of worshiping any physical object, let alone an incomplete spiritual one, where does the reverence for what can be reduced to “x” pounds of parchment and “y” pounds of ink enter the picture? Warned to not be fooled into following any of the agents The Creator employs to direct our world, to never bow down to a star or planet, let alone to a person of flesh-and-blood, how can we worship this inanimate object?

The only way to avoid making an “avoda zara” (idolatrous worship) out of the Torah is to realize that the physical object that rests in the Holy Arks around the world, that we hold lovingly in our arms and from which we read in a chant so ancient that it transforms us to a much earlier, purer state of being, is only, as it were, the “tip of the iceberg”. It is the final reduction of absolute infinity, crystalized, as it were, into sounds and words which become letters which become black ink on specially prepared hides. Although it easily looks, and too many people dull their own senses to make them forget reality, that these scrolls are really the essence of what we celebrate tonight and tomorrow. Nonetheless, remembering the Zohar’s insight (3:73a), “…Oraita v’Kudsha Brich Hu Chad Hu“, that the Torah and God are One, inseparable, we remember that we’re celebrating this one specific form in which The Almighty chose to reveal Himself to the Jewish People.

When we dance with the scroll, and later when we read the timeless closing and then opening lines, we celebrate our intimate connection to The Creator.

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